Innovation in solar is not limited to thin film deposition or cool inverter electronics.

In fact, it's companies like Zep Solar, with innovations in balance of system and hardware, that can make impacts in the labor of installing solar panels -- and ultimately the all-in cost of solar systems.

Mounting systems can account for seven percent to 10 percent of the cost of the entire installed solar system. That borders on the same proportions as the $6 billion inverter market. And that makes mounting systems a large growth market with its own set of innovations and competitive pressures.

Zep Solar is able to demonstrate a 4X to 5X improvement in the speed of installing the solar array compared to a competitor's rail-based system. That translates to lower labor costs and lower systems costs.

Zep's innovation is the "Zep Groove" -- making the panel itself part of the racking hardware via a specially grooved frame, eliminating rails and using the module frame as the structural and mounting element. That special frame does not come from Zep -- it comes from a panel vendor that has licensed the Zep design and the aluminum die. It's quite a sales victory for an established vendor to adopt a standard from a startup. One hopes that the Chinese vendors will honor the patents and license.

Zep's revenue comes from the sale of hardware to support the Zep Groove and to a lesser extent the licensing piece. The firm already has nine licensees, including top solar vendors such as Yingli Solar, Canadian Solar and Trina Solar. Most of the startup's business has been in the U.S. 

Zep essentially eliminates the need for grounding; grounding occurs as a result of making the structural connections between the modules.

The model that Daniel Flanigan, VP of Marketing, put forth was the Zep Groove as USB port, enabling a wide range of solar balance of system pieces such as grounding, wiring, and microinverters or panel-level electronics to be more easily mounted and assembled. The relative ease of mounting also potentially opens up the craft of solar installation to a wider range of tradespeople such as roofers and electricians.

Zep Solar, funded by venture firm Aquillian investments, is looking to disrupt the business of incumbents such as Unirac and Schletter. Other players in this market include Sunlink, Panel Claw, and PV Installation.


A custom Zep tool helps install the panels.


Zep's founder and CTO, Jack West, commuting to work. Really. West commutes to work in a kayak.